Spam Index, Shopping Catalog & Co. – An Introduction to Anti-Social Rationality

Do you want to be the #1 top result on Google?

No, thank you.

To many people this reaction might seem odd.

Let me backtrack a little. Yesterday I alerted yet another person of the fact that I can see they are using gmail.com as their email server (even though their email address shows merely their own domain name). I had initiated contact, and in the header information to their reply email – well, anyone can see this information, because it is in plain daylight, plain text, plain and simple – there was Google / Gmail. However, because most of the „users“ on the Internet are illiterate, many people think no one will ever notice that their correspondence is being shared with innumerable Fortune 500 companies and governments who are aligned with Google to harvest „insights“ from this data.

My business contact was surprized, and broke off the contact. Of course Google knows who I am talking about, but I will nonethless respect this person’s privacy. If this information gets shared with other businesses (for example: competitors might pay money for such data, and simply add the cost to the price of their products and/or services), then it was not me, but rather the organization that is the world’s leading provider of industrial espionage software (aka Google).

I am often disappointed and regret the widespread illiteracy. But at least I am not myself one of the suckers whose private information gets sold to the highest bidder.

I think many people consider my complacency illusory and backwards. After all: If you want to show up on the Google website, wouldn’t you be happy to let them probe your interior, private and confidential business communications?

No, not really – but thank you very much for the FREE OFFER! 😉

I have many websites that rank very well (but no thanks to any sort of „special consideration“) on pretty much all search engines. Indeed, if there were a search engine they did not rank well on, then people would probably eventually avoid using it simply because the results on such a search engine would „suck“. Many years ago I sent Matt Cutts a „tweet“ showing him there was something wrong with Google and then they fixed it. You might be able to still find our exchange on twitter.com – but you would have to go back many years (I haven’t used twitter for… OMG, IDK how long).

One thing you need to consider if you actually get a website to rank well on such so-called „search engines“ (BTW: many / most businesses which track „search engines“ are usually unable to define what is / isn’t a „search engine“), then you should be ready for spammers. If you are not ready, your site will be flooded with spam in a matter of minutes. Most of this spam is generated by robots, and robots work very fast. Being the top result on Google is an open invitation to having your inbox overflowing with love from a wide variety of „artificial intelligence“ machines. I, personally, have little or no interest in such robotic affection.

I actually even have little interest in ranking highly on Google. In my opinion, the results are already so shoddy that I feel showing up on Google is sort of like showing up at a thug lineup. Most company websites where the company marketing team prides itself for its high ranking on Google are sending a very clear message to consumers: „We paid a lot of money to show up here, so if you buy from us you will probably need to pay a little more“. There is very little indication of quality or reliability from showing up on Google or Facebook or Youtube or whatever most people think of as a general „search engine“. At least Facebook seems to be honest about the need to pay money, but I really don’t think that would actually motivate me to waste it on reaching billions of people (and/or robots) with very limited literacy skills. Most such people (and/or computers) would probably not even understand (and/or act on) the most clearly written message anyways. They are usually primarily searching for a free lunch, flashing lights, bells and whistles – and I am not interested in offering anything like that. I am prepared to offer people and businesses affordable solutions, but I don’t want to be your slave.

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Rational Media + Literacy

In a rather lengthy digression on the “rational media” topic, I wrote some more about my notion of literacy (which includes what other people often refer to as “media literacy”, “computer literacy” or other such special cases — I do not consider them to be special; in my opinion, they need to be included in the general concept of literacy). I also make a distinction between “external technology” and “internal technology” — this is roughly speaking equal to the economic concepts “capital” and “human capital”. You can check out the article here: “The Intention Economy“.

Regarding rational media, another web site (I bet you haven’t seen those two words written separated by a space in a long time — but then again perhaps you should think more about why I might feel the distinction between “web site” and “website” is important 😉 ) I highly recommend in the context of the intention economy is intent.com (managed by a team of very intentional workers working together with Mallika Chopra).

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The Big Data Rationality of Large Numbers: Quantitative Statistics + Fanatical Delusions

There are virtually innumerable fans of so-called „big data“. Countless fanatics of this quasi-scientific method will swear on a stack of bibles that if you count anything – it really doesn’t matter what, as that minute detail will certainly „emerge“ from the data itself – you will be rewarded with insights beyond your wildest dreams. Such descendents of bean-counters from previous centuries have moved on to grains of sand, dust particles, the colors of a beautiful sunset, whatever.

These people may strongly believe in science – without actually understanding much about scientific methods.

There seems to be a link between such lacking understanding and fanaticism. Let’s go back to one of the greatest leaders of fanatical movements ever: Adolf Hitler was probably one of the most (if not even the most) quintessial dictators of all times. I think what many people overlook, though, in this example is not that he was able to mesmerize such humungous masses, but rather how the masses let themselves become mesmerized.

Fans follow leaders (perhaps they should instead watch the parking meters 😉 ). There is a sort of quirky rationality to this behavior: When fans follow their leader, they apparently feel they no longer have to think themselves… – they simply accept whatever their leader says (i.e., dictates). This saves energy, because thinking can be quite difficult. Not thinking is easier than thinking.

The important takeaway is this: If people feel able to let someone else do the thinking, they seem very willing to do so. One way they feel able to enable a dictator to think for them is if / when other people seem to approve of the dictator. Other people’s approval of a dictator seems to make it „OK“ to let the dictator do as he / she pleases… – whether the dictator is a politician, a celebrity, a brand name, or anything anyone happens to be a fan (i.e., a fanatical follower) of.

When popular brand names such as Google or Facebook sell „big data“, of course they tell naive and innocent consumers a story about how important big data is in order for consumers to be able to find leaders. What they don’t tell such consumers (as those people who are willing to believe this story) is that the „big data“ plans are actually all about tracking consumer behavior. What they don’t tell advertisers is that the consumer behavior they track actually isn’t actually a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, but merely a fanatical delusion hardly worth any more than a single grain of sand.

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The Rationality of Large Numbers

This is a huge topic – I will not be able to cover it in a single post, not even in just a few posts. What I want to do here and now is to introduce the topic, and to describe why I feel it is so immensely important.

First: What do I mean by „large numbers“? Oddly, I am not even exactly sure myself. I think I mean at least two things. Most directly and obviously, I mean the statistical and research methodology that is a cornerstone of the scientific method which has been used with such resounding success for hundreds of years already. Basically, this has to do with large populations (whether of people, of atoms or of other things), and how there seem to be quite predictable relationships between characteristics of populations and characteristics of individual members of such populations. Although I do not mean to diminish the importance of the insights gained from such statistical analysis, one point that often seems to get overlooked is that it is nonetheless a belief system – much like a religion, we believe that atoms (and similar properties of phenomena we refer to collectively as „the hard sciences“) behave in accordance to such laws (as „the law of large numbers“) throughout the universe. Nonetheless, to call the entire scientific method into question because of this one intriguing point would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Let me turn to a much more disconcerting issue with respect to the notion of large numbers. In the scientific approach, it seems quite clear that the aim is to be able to make predictions about populations which basically result from the way a large number of individual members of these populations function. There is, however, also a much more controversial matter – namely, that large populations may also have an impact on individual members. Although this may not be obvious when talking about atoms or similar „inanimate“ phenomena, one would be quite hard pressed to maintain that one single bird is not influenced by actions of the flock, or that one single human is not affected by actions of a mob of people which he or she is a member of.

Beyond that, over the past century or so it has become blatantly obvious that individuals are not only influenced by actual mobs, but that they are even prone to change their behavior on the basis of merely a percieved influence of mobs. The groundbreaking insights of Gustav Lebon at the close of the 19th Century were used with amazing „success“ throughout the 20th Century, and they are still being used today. In many – no: in the vast majority of – countries today, the vast majority of the population believe that the „top result“ for any search using google.com are validated by the vast majority of the population worldwide. Similarly, advertisements shown on facebook.com or on the screens of smartphones are assumed to be backed „by the numbers“.

In this sense, one can quite reasonably argue that „belief in Google“, „belief in Facebook“, etc. are on par with belief in other religious organizations and/or belief in some kind of infallible oracle.

At the same time (over the past century or so), there have been significant advances in the scientific approaches used to measure and improve the effectivity of propaganda and manipulation. Today advertising has become something akin to the gold standard of validation with respect to new ideas, innovation and anything modern, successful and/or technologically advanced. I remember seeing billboards advertising apple products nearly everywhere about 10 years ago, and such overwheming repitition was a nearly everpresent and constant reminder that apple was „where it’s at“, plain and simple because apple was everywhere. Today, „everywhere“ has also even eradicated the traditional distinction between „editorial“ and „advertising“ once used in „traditional“ publishing. Today, the „newsfeed“ is populated with many advertisements and product placements, and the vast majority of news consumers view this as a sign of success.

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The Ubiquity of the Text Box (excursus)

One of my favorite authors in the field of „search“ is John Battelle. Although he was not trained in the field of information science or information retrieval, his experience in the fields of journalism and publishing at the cusp of the so-called „information revolution“ apparently led him to learn many things sort of by osmosis.

One of my favorite ideas of his is the way he talks about human-computer interaction. Initially, this was almost exclusively text-based. Then, he notes, with the advent of „graphical user interfaces“ (GUIs), computers became more and more instruments with which humans, would point at stuff. He has presented this idea quite often, I don’t even know which presentation I should refer, link or point to – which one I should index.

In the early days of search, the book was ubiquitous. Indeed, several hundred years ago it almost seems as though each and every question could be answered with one single codex – and this codex was called „Bible“ (which means, essentially, „the books“). We have come a long way, baby. Today, we might say that online, the text box is king“ (Tom Paine, eat your heart out! 😉 ).

Although computer manufacturers desparately try to limit the choices consumers have once they have acquired their machines with loads of previously installed (and usually highly sponsored) software, it will not be very long before the typical consumer is confronted with a text box in order to interact with his or her mish-mash of hardware and software. Even without typing out any text whatsoever, whenever a human presses on a button to take a picture or clicks on an icon to record an audio or video, the associated files are given a text-string filename by the gizmo machinery. All of the code running on each and every machine is written out in plain text somewhere. When computers write their own Bible, it is quite probable that they would start off with something like „In the beginning was the text, and it was human.“

If humans ever asked an „artificially intelligent“ computer a question like „what is love?“ the computer would probably be very hard-pressed not to respond „a four-letter word“.

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